Oliver Bullough is the author of Moneyland: Why Thieves And Crooks Now Rule The World And How To Take It Back, an urgent, searing account of corruption in the world's financial systems.

In This Week in Moneyland, Oliver will update us weekly on the extraordinary sories of financial corruption currently in the news in the run up to publication of Moneyland on 6th September.

Follow Oliver on Twitter @oliverbullough.


 

Moneyland: A How-to for Corrupt Officials? 


I have just returned from the Edinburgh literature festival, where I had a great time talking about Moneyland and all its crooks, villains and occasional heroes.

This was the first time I’ve spoken about the book, and I’d tried to anticipate what kind of questions I might get, but one sixth-former totally threw me: “are you concerned that this book could serve as a how-to guide for corrupt officials?”

The idea simply hadn’t occurred to me, which is ironic in the circumstances. In Moneyland, I talk about plutonomy, a concept developed by financial analysts to describe how – in a world where an ever-greater share of the world’s wealth is in the hands of an ever-smaller group of people – companies are making money by focussing solely on the ultra-rich. French wine producers, Swiss watch manufacturers, Scotch whisky distillers and other makers of luxury products, do well whatever the state of the world economy, since the wealthy keep buying them whatever happens.

Servicing plutonomy?

If I’d been thinking strategically when I came up with the idea for this book, then I’d have been thinking plutonomically. If my argument in Moneyland is right, and the corrupt and the well-connected are going to keep monopolising ever more money, then the smart play would be to service that market. It could be a highly profitable publication, an endlessly updateable reference book for the best places to bank dirty money, the opaquest tax havens, the most venal reputation launderers. Because being a kleptocrat is a lot harder than it used to be.

Rolex

Back in the 1970s, if you were lucky enough to run a country, you could dash off a quick note to the Central Bank governor requesting cash for “national security reasons”, give it to a trusted truck driver, and have possession of a sizeable chunk of the nation’s foreign currency reserves by the close of business. You’d then load it onto a plane, fly it to Switzerland and you were done: you had an anonymously-owned fortune, in the heart of Europe, and there was nothing to stop you stealing more the next day. When you wanted to spend it, you could charter Concorde, fly to Paris and buy more stuff than you could ever need.

Even in the 1980s, if you were laundering cash for the cocaine mob in Miami, the process was pretty straightforward. Charter a jet, fly (with the money) to Saint-Marten in the Caribbean, hop across to Anguilla in a boat, set up a shell company and a bank account with a friendly lawyer, then pile as much money in as you wished. If you didn’t like Anguilla, you could go to the Cayman Islands, or pretty much anywhere. Once the money was in a bank account, you moved it around a bit, then brought it back to Miami and bought shopping malls.

Enter the Russians

In the 1990s, the Russians got in on the game, and things began to get a little elaborate. Russian officials had British companies owning Cypriot companies that controlled Latvian bank accounts, which received money kicked back from oligarchs who wanted to take over an oil company. This was starting to get specialised, and that’s when kleptocrats began to need highly skilled enablers to guide them through the process of hiding their stolen money. By the 2000s, these enablers were making good use of the internet, which allowed them to open bank accounts and create shell companies in whatever jurisdiction was most convenient for their clients. A web of financial concealment created in an afternoon can take investigators years to unpick.

Now, of course, everyone’s at it: Chinese generals, Malaysian princelings, Afghan strongmen, Ukrainian oligarchs, Nigerian governors. The world of hidden cash – Moneyland – is open to everyone, provided, of course, they’re rich enough. And that brings us back to my book, which is very much not intended to be a how-to guide for aspiring kleptocrats.

On the contrary, it exposes their appalling behaviour and argues that we need to understand what they’re doing if we want to save democracy. But if I was to write a how-to book, I know what I’d call it: Steal It, Hide It, Spend It: How to transform your position of responsibility into lasting wealth for you and your family.

Or that’s one option anyway. The other possibility would have been to keep the knowledge I’ve gathered to myself, and become a kleptocrat on my own account. That was the advice I received from a different six-former, when I gave a talk to his class at a school near London late last year. After watching me suspiciously from the back row for an hour, he finally put his hand up: “if you know all this, why don’t you just go and steal all that money for yourself?”

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